Why do so many women feel overwhelmed, stressed out and tired?

Between technology and feminism, life was supposed to get easier for women. What went wrong—and can we fix it?
Rachel Giese


Long hours of my early childhood were spent in our family car, accompanying my stay-at-home mother on errands to the grocery store, the post office, the dry cleaners and the bank. Sometimes I was dragged along inside, but often, I stayed in the back seat with my colouring books to entertain myself while my mom quickly mailed a letter or picked up a loaf of bread unencumbered by a preschooler. To modern parents, this might sound delinquent, but at the time it was unremarkable. Most of my demographic cohort — Generation X, born roughly between 1965 and 1984 — were raised with this kind of benign neglect. We watched Sesame Street through the bars of our playpens, inhaled second-hand smoke in restaurants, rode in cars without seatbelts and were regularly exiled outside to play “until the streetlights came on.”

I doubt leaving me in the car ever troubled my mom. She was one of six children, born at the tail-end of the Great Depression to very newly arrived immigrant parents who worked on a farm. Her childhood was hardscrabble; by comparison, mine was positively cushy. Besides, parents in that era didn’t think of child rearing as a calling, but rather as another domestic responsibility. According to a 2016 study that spanned several decades and looked at data from 11 Western countries (including Canada), mothers spent 54 minutes a day on childcare-related activities in 1965 (dads averaged 16). That was just enough time to change diapers, provide meals, bathe and maybe do a little bedtime reading or homework help. Beyond that, kids were mostly left to their own devices.

What’s fascinating is what happened when those Gen X-ers grew up and had families of their own. Instead of adopting the laissez-faire attitudes of their parents, they engaged in what experts refer to as “intensive parenting” and what think-piece writers criticize as “hovering” or “helicoptering.” By 2012, according to the international study cited above, mothers had nearly doubled the time they spent on childcare activities to 104 minutes per day. (Dads, meanwhile, averaged 59 minutes.)

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I certainly recognize myself in this trend: I didn’t leave my son alone in the car until he was at least 11 or 12 — and even then I made sure he was always in my sightlines while I ran a brief errand. I wondered if perhaps I’d exaggerated all the times I’d been left in the car when I was a child until I came across a confirming — and vindicating — statistic in Maclean’s Canada Project survey, in partnership with Abacus Data. When Canadians were asked if they would ever leave their child alone in the car for just a minute, only 39 per cent of Gen Xers said yes, compared to a whopping 87 per cent of those in their parents’ generation.

On the surface, these answers reveal a classic generation gap, an example of how social, cultural and family norms evolve over time. But dig a bit deeper, and these numbers on the child-in-a-car question reveal other truths about the state of the family in 2017, and in particular the state of women. Back in 1965, two emerging forces — digital technology and feminism — promised to revolutionize women’s lives. The latter would afford them social, sexual and economic independence. The former (everything from microwaves to computers) would liberate them from domestic drudgery and streamline their busy lives.

Yet instead of revelling in our freedom and leisure, we are currently experiencing an epidemic of what’s known as time poverty, an over-busyness that comes with an attendant sense of anxiety. According to a 2010 study by the American Psychological Association, 49 per cent of women said their stress had increased over the past five years, compared to 39 percent of men. And stress had a much stronger physical and emotional impact on women, in the form of headaches (41 per cent in women versus 30 per cent in men) and an upset stomach or indigestion (32 per cent versus 21 per cent). Nearly half the women surveyed reported having lain awake at night within the last month because of stress.

I recently asked Jill Filipovic , author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, about the biggest obstacles to women’s happiness, and she told me that women across every income group, race and location were “stretched thin” by the demands on them at home and at work. “We all feel like stressed-out failures,” she said. Her findings squared with the sentiments of 1,000 Canadian women surveyed by Chatelaine earlier this year for our This is 40-ish feature in January. When asked to describe how they feel, the number one word they used was “tired.”

The capacity to multi-task — to be a high-performance employee, parent, daughter and spouse — has become a badge of honour. But what have women lost when it comes to quality of life? And how did we even get here?

According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, Canadian women spend 520.6 minutes a day on paid and unpaid work combined, compared to men’s 501 minutes a day. While men do more paid work, women continue to take on the bulk of housework and child rearing. And it’s worth pointing out that Canadian women continue to earn less for the work they’re paid to do: In 2015, women made 87 cents an hour for every dollar made by men. Globally, women (and, in some cases, girls) do an average of 4.5 hours of unpaid work per day. That’s more than double the worldwide average for men.

There’s a gender gap in vacation time, as well. According to the US Travel Association, although women were more likely than men to say that taking time off for vacations was “extremely important” to them, only 44 per cent used their allotted days, compared to 48 per cent of men. Among Millennials, the disparity was even bigger: In that demographic, 51 per cent of men used up all their vacation time, while only 44 per cent of women did. (The reason: younger women said they worried that taking time off might make their bosses think they weren’t committed to their work.) 

What’s the impact of all this? Dr. Valerie Taylor, chief of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, says she sees the consequences of overwork on her patients all the time. Constant anxiety compromises the immune and cardiovascular systems, making people more likely to catch colds and flus, and to suffer from conditions like high blood pressure. Chronic stress causes the body to release an excess of the hormone cortisol, which can result in anxiety, depression and sleeplessness.

Plus, Taylor says, “self-neglect is a big problem for women. They look at everything that has to get done and they put themselves at the bottom of the list.” Just as women are reluctant to take vacation, Taylor says she knows of patients who refuse to take sick days off work to care for themselves. Instead, women tell her that they bank those days in case their children or elderly parents get ill and they need to care for them.

MORE: The Collapse of Parenting

Dr. Jiri Zuzanek is a sociologist at the University of Waterloo who studies leisure time and life quality. Looking at Statistics Canada data between 1981 and 2010, he found that when you take the entire adult population into account, our time-use patterns overall have changed very little over 30 years. In 1981, combined paid and domestic work accounted for 29 percent of the average person’s daily time; in 2010, it was 30 per cent. However, when Zuzanek narrowed in on employed parents with at least one child under 12, their total workload rose from 37 to 44 per cent of their day over that period, while their free time shrunk from 42 to 38 per cent.

This concentration of time poverty among people in the middle of their lives is, in part, due to changing economic conditions and demographics. At the older end of spectrum, a huge cohort of Baby Boomers is currently in or nearing retirement. And at the younger end, Millennials are graduating from high school and university into a precarious job market and are in many cases underemployed.

Those factors aside, time poverty is on the rise because our relationship to work and time has been completely transformed over the past 30 years, Zuzanek explains. “Technology has sped up the rhythms of our daily life,” he says. We are perpetually connected to an endless stream of information. With our smartphones, “we can be interrupted at any time, even at times in the past which were relatively free of intrusion.” We get emails, texts and calls into our weekends and evenings, as well as write and receive a newsstand worth of information each day.

MORE: Why using social media might make you a better parent

American journalist Brigid Schulte, author of the 2014 book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, coined the phrase “the overwhelm” to describe the increasingly prevalent sense of perpetually being behind on our obligations. And women, she says, suffer the worst. In her book, she traces this gender disparity back to the ’70s and ’80s, when women surged into the paid labour force. At the same time, fear mongering reports began running in the media with headlines like “The Myth of Quality Time: How We’re Cheating Our Kids,” and “Working Parents’ Torment: Teens After School.” That sort of shaming created a contagious cycle of guilt and overcompensation — heightened now by social media, where we can relentlessly measure ours lives and accomplishments to those of our friends.

And even though mothers are now spending more time with their children than their mothers did, they don’t necessarily find it pleasurable. As Jennifer Senior notes in her 2014 book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, as children’s leisure time has increased and parenting has intensified, kids have gone “from being our employees to our bosses.”

Consider what can happen when parents do leave their children unsupervised: Last year, a stay-at-home mother of three in Winnipeg received a visit from Child Protective Services after neighbours complained that two of her kids, aged 10 and 5, were playing alone in their fully fenced-in backyard. The mom was at home at the time and could see the children through her windows. With the threat of social judgment and calls to child welfare agencies, parenting now requires a constant vigilance and hands-on involvement that would have never been expected a generation ago.

In a very short period of time both our families and our workforce have undergone tremendous change and women, Schulte says, are at “the bleeding edge of it.” Back in 1999, American sociologist Arlie Hochschild first identified what came to be called the “second shift” — women would come home after a day at their paid job and then work several more hours doing housework and childcare. At the time, she estimated that women were working an extra month more than their male partners every year.

Twenty-five years later, work culture hasn’t really adapted to the growing numbers of women in the paid labour force — and in fact has become even more demanding in the digital age. “We still think the ideal worker is someone who is available all the time and has no domestic responsibilities,” Schulte says. “Let’s face it: That’s a guy from the 1950s.”

“Flexible” work hours, for instance, which are meant to be family-friendly can end up creating more stress. Sure, an employee can leave early to take her elderly mother to the doctor, but she’s then expected to answer her emails in the waiting room and write reports over the weekend to make up for lost time. Elle glowingly profiled the indefatigable New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who covers President Donald Trump. In addition to working gruelling hours, Haberman is a mother of three who commutes between Brooklyn and Washington. There’s an anecdote in the profile in which Haberman gets a hot news tip at a not particularly convenient time: She’s in the audience watching her son’s kindergarten graduation. But she ends up writing the story on her phone during the ceremony.

To cope with the crunch, plenty of middle- and upper-income families employ nannies and housecleaners, and use food delivery services to ease the burden. Those conveniences aren’t options for everyone, as Schulte is quick to point out. And although it’s high profile and high paid women like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who have become the face and voice of the work-life balance struggle, in fact it’s low-wage workers and single mothers who are the most time strapped.

“These are the women who have less support and less control over their schedules,” Schulte says. “When you’re poor, transportation is stressful, finding high-quality childcare is stressful, the uncertainly of employment and of housing is stressful.” And if women are unemployed and can’t find decent work, “it’s not like they’re doing self-care and refreshing their souls with their spare time. They’re stressed out either looking for work or trying to cobble together the means to support themselves and their children.”

And if middle-class parents are getting in trouble for letting their children play unsupervised, for poor women, the threat is even greater.  In 2014, a woman in South Carolina who works at McDonald’s was jailed after she allowed her nine-year-old daughter to play in a park, while she went to do her shift. Usually, the girl would sit in the McDonald’s with a laptop, but the computer had been stolen from the family during a break-in and the child was bored. She asked if she could go to a nearby park to play, with a cellphone in case of emergencies. An adult in the park saw the girl playing and alerted the police. This is the sort of impossible situation facing women who can’t afford decent afterschool and weekend care for their children. For them it isn’t a question of trying to “have it all,” but rather fighting to just get by.

MORE: Regretting motherhood

So how do we go about fixing the epidemic of time poverty? In the big picture, a greater investment in supports for families—like universal daycare and affordable, high-quality elder care—would go a long way toward reducing pressure and stress. Taylor, the psychiatrist at Women’s College in Toronto, suggests expanding subsidized daycare hours to support parents who do shift work, and increasing short-term daycare services for parents who might need someone to look after their children while they go to a job interview or a doctor’s appointment.

Humane workplace policies would help, too. Schulte says the thinking around flexibility at work can actually serve to underscore gender disparity. “Women, whether or not they intend to have children, are often presumed to be on the ‘mommy-track,’” she says. In turn, they feel obligated to work harder than their male colleagues in order to be taken seriously and considered for promotions. Likewise, Schulte says the language in workplace policies should be gender neutral, so it’s not “maternity leave” but “family leave” or “personal leave.” Changing these terms to be gender-blind might also encourage men to take up more of these sorts of responsibilities.

Women can also challenge the expectations of what it means to be a good mother, worker, daughter and friend. “There are cultural pressures about self-sacrifice that are really detrimental to women,” Schulte says. “And I say this as someone who has baked Valentine’s Day cupcakes for my children’s school at two o’clock in the morning rather than buying them at the grocery store, for fear of looking like a horrible mother.”

The Canada Project

Taylor often advises her overwhelmed patients to do a little experiment: She tells them to make a list of all the things they want to do in their downtime and then keep track of what actually gets done. If they never tick off the things that make them feel good, like going for a walk, reading a book or having coffee with a friend, she tells them to put those items at the very top of the list and to do them before they do anything else. Similarly, Taylor encourages women and their families to regularly disconnect from their devices and put daily time limits on their social media use, as a way to take back some control from the onslaught of information.

“When I speak to groups of women about the pressure we put on ourselves, I look around the room and see that everyone is nodding,” she says. “They think that everyone else has got their life together and it’s just them who feels overwhelmed. We judge ourselves much more harshly than other people do. That’s why I want women to create time to look after themselves, because that’s just as valuable and important as creating time to look after other people.”